Nature or Nurture [Special Episode]


#1

“Look, Os,” Fara said with a sigh, “I don’t think this is some place you’re going to want to work. It’s all… scummy.”

Osprey wasn’t deterred, though. The two of them walked through Altrega’s Beach, in the poorest part of Albrook, and Fara did her best to not stare too long at the occasional glower from the down on their luck refugees. She might have been the Mana Knight, but witnessing abject poverty stood sharply at odds with life in Egmont. Egmont had rougher neighborhoods, but it didn’t have slums like these.

Osprey barely seemed to notice. Or, maybe, he didn’t care. “You mentioned they had a help wanted sign,” he countered. “I have to inquire. I will not waver in my mission.”

“Maybe your job search, um,” Fara started, though she hesitated, “would go a little better if you stopped calling it your mission? Maybe something less… intense?”

“Employers want to see that you’re committed to the job.”

“But you can do commitment without…” Fara motioned in front of her with her hands, trying to use them to show the concept she meant. Osprey’s avian eyes stared back at her, all black and with no comprehension.

“…without?” he prompted.

Fara sighed. “Nevermind. Roxanne probably wants you and Terry to move out soon.”

“And in this task,” Osprey vowed solemnly, “I will not fail. I will strive until there is no more to be striven. When my future employer thinks of perseverance, they will look upon the wake of my deeds and know–” He clenched a fist, holding it before his face. “–that Osprey deserves a raise! I will not fail!”

“Maybe dial it back down a little, though,” she said. “But seriously, Os, I only saw this place because I got off the wrong stop. It’s a laundromat. I really don’t come here, so I’m not sure I’m your ‘inside person.’”

“I have complete faith!”

She sighed and left it at that. Fara led him down the street, until they reached the location. The laundromat was small and cramped, some ramshackle building thrown up in the wake of the refugee crisis, and the windows looked dirty. She felt the faintest relief when she saw the help wanted sign had since been taken down from the window. It didn’t last, because Osprey wasn’t deterred. He stepped in through the front door. Fara followed him warily.

She wrinkled her nose, sniffing. “Um, Os,” she said, “shouldn’t a laundromat smell clean? This place smells kind of…”

She stopped talking as the store’s owner came out from the back. He wore nothing but a stained undershirt, with a broad build and a gut hanging over. His hair turned grey, for the most part. He placed a hand on a large wooden crate behind the counter. A few holes were cut into the side and she saw the whole thing rattle with the motion.

“What?” he said.

Osprey didn’t say a word. Fara found that strange, so she looked at him, before she looked back at the store owner. “So, um, hi!” she said. “I’m Fara Somers, and this is my friend Osprey, and I saw your help wanted sign. He kind of needs a job, and I noticed your place is seriously kinda dirty, and he can clean up, so–”

“Nevermind,” Osprey interrupted. “I don’t want to work in a place like this.” He turned on a talon and walked out the door.

“Oh my gods,” Fara said, “I am so sorry.” The man stared at her suspiciously, as she backed up and out the door with the most apologetic smile she could muster. As soon as she was on the street, she whirled around to face Osprey and threw her hands out. “Os! What the hell was that! You didn’t even try! What happened to striving until you run out of striving to do or whatever you said!”

The Lancer stared at the laundromat. “Because,” he said, “there was a child trapped inside the crate behind the counter. I saw her eyes through the holes. I think this is a human trafficking front.”

“Oh.” Fara looked at the front door. “That. Um. That’s a good reason.”

“Yes,” Osprey agreed. “Back inside?”

The Mana Sword appeared in her hand, manifesting as a long sword. “Back inside.”


#2

Osprey expected the man in the front to have his gun out. The needle pistol swung up the moment that Osprey kicked the door in, and he ducked his head to the left. The shot fired into the street, while the man swore. Then Osprey leaped, landing atop the crate. His talons dug into the wood and he heard a muffled yell from inside. The big man turned and swung a fist, which Osprey caught in one hand.

Which was when the Mana Knight came up behind him, swung the pommel of her sword around, and clobbered him with the hilt. He crumpled down to the ground, knocked out cold.

“There’s more in back,” Osprey said. “I think they’re running out the side door.”

“I don’t know if we can catch them,” Fara said. “Besides, there’s whoever is inside of here.”

Osprey considered this a moment, before he nodded. He noticed where the alleyways led, and Altrega’s Beach could become a maze. The alleys led to narrow walkways, stairs, catwalks, and a labyrinthine network of tunnels, hallways, and rooftop paths that only the natives here might know. He doubted that he could follow them, especially after all of them split up. He hopped off the crate.

Fara slid the Mana Sword in between the crack between lid and crate, then pried the wooden lid upward. The sword of legend proved a good crowbar, too, and the nails came free with a creak. Fara knocked the lid aside.

Osprey looked down into the crate. It was dark, save for the pair of green eyes he saw before, and the outline of a child. Next came a spark and a whirl of flame. Then he flew backward with a squawk, hands over his face, and yelped. It burned mightily. “Ow! Ow, the child has attempted to roast me!”

“Stay back!” a girl’s voice, perhaps only eight or nine, yelled. Then she stood up from the crate, her head just poking across the top of it. She had dark red hair, a couple shades darker than Fara’s, which came to her shoulders. She scowled mightily up at Osprey, arms folded. Flame danced across the fingers on her left hand. “Now that I’m not in the crate, I won’t feel bad at all about making you into Boco’s Crispy Chocobo!”

Fara laughed him. She actually laughed! She had the the good manners to at least cover her mouth, though, and look back down into the crate. “Um, don’t worry,” she said, “we’re here to save you from the bad people!”

“She tried to set me on fire!” Osprey complained again.

“Do you want to be crispier!?” the girl demanded. “Because I’ll do it! My mother and father will understand. They’re going to be so worried that they’ll almost be okay with it.”

“O-okay,” Fara said, “let’s calm down.”

“Sorry,” the little girl said. She looked at Osprey, who rubbed his beak indignantly. “Are you really here to rescue me?”

“Well… something like that,” Fara said. “It’s more like Osprey noticed you were inside the crate and then we decided to rescue you. I guess it’s like an improv school of heroism.”

“Oh,” the girl said.

The three of them grew entirely and awkwardly quiet. Osprey folded his arms and tried to look mysterious, but it mostly looked indignant. A thin tendril of smoke wafted from his head. The little girl looked at them with confusion and, perhaps, disappointment. Fara decided this rescue wasn’t nearly as cool as it could have been.

“So, um,” she sighed, “What’s your name?”

“Lera,” the girl said.

“Oh,” Osprey said, “your names rhyme. Lera and Fara. Fara and Lera. Fara Lera. Lera Fara. Yes, this is pleasing to my power of obser–”

“Should I make him crispy?” Lera asked.

“Tempting,” Fara admitted. “How did you end up in the crate?”

“The man with glasses,” she said. She looked scared, finally; her green eyes looked down at the bottom of the crate. Her eyes stayed there. “Someone working for him grabbed me when I was at the pool. My family’s visiting Albrook for vacation.” She hesitated. “When I woke up, I was in a warehouse. He said I was… lucky.”

“This doesn’t sound good,” Fara said. She looked at Osprey. “We should call the police. They can take our friend into custody and get her back to her family.”

Osprey closed his eyes instead of answering her. He heard the irritation enter Lera’s voice; he could practically picture her face scrunch up. “He’s being weird,” she said. “Why isn’t he answering? I think–”

“We need to go out the side,” Osprey said, eyes opening, “and we need to do it now.”

“Er, okay, then!” Fara said. She took Lera by the hand and began to hurry through the back door. Osprey darted after the two of them. They ran around the rows of washers and dryers – most didn’t look to be functioning – and then out the emergency exit, which had already been opened. As Osprey expected, it left them standing in a tall and narrow alleyway. It was dark, until it abruptly wasn’t.

Because a thunderous crack-boom sounded, before a lance of light shot through the laundromat. Then, the building came down into a heap. Splinters erupted into the air, smoke raised, and then began to part. Osprey watched with a calm cool, while Fara stared with her mouth hanging open. Lera just pointed at the now destroyed laundromat.

Osprey grabbed them both, and pulled back into the connecting alleway, then ducked low. The smoke began to clear, and he saw what he heard in the skies above: a black Seraphim. The Sera-R descended, landing in the street, and its green camera eyes looked down at the wreckage of the laundromat. People shrieked, screamed, and pointed at it, but no one in the street dared to approach.

It lingered a moment, before lifting into the air. The robot flew away, then, and left the wreckage in its wake. Sirens began to wail.

“What the hell was that!” Fara demanded, finally, her voice a hoarse whisper.

“That,” Lera answered her, her green eyes full of childlike wonder and delight, “was the coolest thing that I’ve ever seen. Ever.

“I think we should take her back to Roxanne’s apartment,” Osprey said.

“Did one of you record it?” Lera asked, ignoring their conversation. “Oh my gods. I want to see that again. Do you have phones? Please tell me one of you recorded it.”

“Um,” Fara said, “Yeah. Let’s… let’s go back there.”

“You didn’t record it, did you.”


#3

Terence Shale felt a small sense of satisfaction when his gravitic baton sent a Zozoan mafioso flying. After the incident with Marcus, Terry didn’t mind a little extra side work. It was a way to get his mind off things and to test some of the new toys that Violante built into his suit. The smuggling ring that he came across, strictly speaking, were small fries: they were bringing in cheap electronics from Alter, but they were built in a clandestine factory in Alter’s asteroid belt, with labor that fit every definition of slavery except a strict legal one.

It gave him the rare chance to smash in televisions, video players, and other electronic devices without even a smidge of guilt. He had a little smile on his face, as the baton in his left hand shattered a television with one of those gravitational waves.

He turned towards the last of the made men. He had his pistol in hands, pointed ineffectually at the Shield’s Seraphim armor. Terry started to open his mouth, to deliver some remark, when the shockwave of a magitek cannon firing shattered the windows, bowled the man over, and shook the house. His armor did not even rattle.

Terry looked at him and sighed. “You got lucky.”

He stepped out of the building, through the front door, and saw two things. First, a laundromat three blocks down the street had turned into a crater filled with debris. Second, a black Sera-R had lifted into the skies and flew away at a low altitude over the city. It passed over Terry’s head in no time at all, the shockwave from its passing sending a wave of debris down the street in his wake.

He heard the sirens wailing, but he doubted the Albrook police would be here in time. He even doubted the Grand Army could deploy in time. They weren’t, typically, expecting a robot to simply appear in the middle of the city.

On the other hand, a robot pilot didn’t expect a flying battlesuit to catch up.

He soared into the air, rushing at the Sera-R from behind. He couldn’t crack Seraphim plastic, but he could hit hard, especially flying that fast. When his foot impacted the back, the plastic armor dented in, and the robot dipped low. It caught the top of a satellite dish, ripping it off, and smashed down into the middle of a park. Terry landed, feet first, and looked up to face the Sera-R, as it turned.

The head of the robot stared down at him. The pilot’s voice boomed out over the loudspeaker. “Which corpse decided to kick me out of the sky?”

“You’re looking at him.”

“What are you planning to do?” he spat at Terry. “A shrimp like you.”

“Just looking,” Terry said. “Unfortunately, my friend made me have laser eyes. It burns when I look.” The blast was everything that he dreamed of: a beam of red, fiery heat that struck the Seraphim in the shoulder, superheated the plastic, and burnt through the back of it.

“Shit!” the pilot shouted. The rifle in the Sera-R’s hand swung down, firing another of those immense blasts of magitek-created fire. The beam scored a hit along the park’s ground, incinerating grass, melting half of a playset, and leaving a fiery crater. It did not, however, burn through Terry’s armor. He leaped into the air, then turned, and came soaring in at the Sera-R.

The pilot was ready, this time. A hand the size of a car swung out, backhanded Terry. His armor kept him from being crushed instantly, but the blow sent him flying through the front of a nearby two-story building. The prefabricated structure wasn’t very sturdy – it was a Great War-issue building, from the GA surplus – and he brought half the facade down as he flew through the wall and into an upstairs storage room. Old boxes full of paper exploded, the contents around him flying like so much confetti.

He forced himself to his feet. Terry’s head rang mightily, but he knew he had little time. That impression was confirmed when he looked outside and saw the rifle, the telltale fiery glow of a magitek shot being prepared.

He fired the heat lasers again. The two beams shot from the suit’s eyes, shooting over the barrel of the rifle, and right through the green visor that hid the Seraphim’s camera system. An explosion tore through the head and the robot stumbled backward. The shot went wide into the air. Terry cracked a smile.

“Back-up cameras are a pain in the ass!” the pilot shouted. “I’m going to rip you in half, pal!”

Terry didn’t intend to let him try. He adjusted his aim, the targeting reticule on his suit’s HUD sliding down to the Sera-R’s right knee. Before he fired, though, the building around him shredded apart. He saw one of the enormous cannon rounds rip right through the ceiling and floor in front of him, before the floor gave way, and the entire building came collapsing down in a heap around him.

For a moment, everything was dark. Terry threw his arms out and sent the shattered building around him flying, chunks of drywall, flooring, and shredded office furniture flying. The building looked to have been abandoned, which was a small comfort compared to what he saw. A second black Sera-R set down in front of him, next to the damaged one, and turned a gravitic gatling cannon on him.

Terry swallowed. He didn’t want to find out if he could survive a direct hit. It wouldn’t pierce the armor, but it might break every bone in his very human body.

A second voice boomed over the loudspeaker from the new Seraphim. “You don’t want to mess with the Bogart Brothers, pal. We fly Seraphim and we don’t take no nonsense from people like you!”

“What my brother Harry is saying,” the pilot of the blinded Seraphim added, “all fancy-like because Ma and Pa only could afford college for one of us, is to not fuck with us!”

“That’s… truly unfortunate,” Terry sighed.

“Don’t insult Johnny’s intelligence!” Harry yelled.

What came next happened too fast for the Shield to quite process. One moment, the two brothers were shouting at him, cannons pointed in his direction. The next, a beam saber stabbed through the knee of Johnny’s blinded Sera-R and brought it down. At the same time, Terry could have sworn, a magitek-produced fire beam ripped through the shoulder of the right arm of the gatling cannon-toting Sera-R. Its cannon dropped down at an angle, before a third Seraphim kicked into the back of its head.

It wasn’t a model that Terry had ever seen before. It was starkly white, with black segments on the chest and legs, and a silver double V-shaped antenna. The eyes glowed green, and it had a blade of shimmering red light in its hand. It wasn’t, he realized, a beam sword: it was a projection of a magical blade, energy field containing numerous runes written across it. Floating behind it were half a dozen flying cannons, which landed on its shoulders and formed a sort of stylized wings.

“Shield,” the new pilot said. “Good work.”

The white Seraphim stumbled backward when Harry’s machine threw it backward. It swung an arm down – a cannon opened up from a retractable component in the forearm – but the two brothers’ robots glowed a brilliant yellow. Terry saw the two robots clasp hands, then a blast of lightning exploded out from the two. It formed a dome, which threw the white machine back.

They flew into the sky, blitzing away, while the white Seraphim fell to a knee. Terry swore, softly, as he saw sparks exploding from several of its joints and sensors. He ran straight towards the robot, leaping the rest of the way to land in front of it. The hatch swung open and the pilot stepped out, clad in a white and gold pilot suit.

“You recognized me,” Terry said.

“Not many guys in Seraphim battlesuits running around,” the man said. He pulled his helmet off. There was something faintly familiar about him, but he wasn’t easy to recognize: the stern features seemed familiar, but the nondescript head of brown hair and short beard didn’t make identifying him easy. His eyes were hidden behind sunglasses, but he stuck Terry with a gaze. “I’m Malakim Scipio. Grand Army Special Operations Group.”

“I’ve never heard of it.”

“That’s the plan,” he said. He pulled a hand radio transmitter off his suit, then spoke into it. “Gallus, I need a retrieval team. Call off the APD and Luftwaffe units. Get my bird back to base and figure out what the hell they did to it.” Terry couldn’t make out the crackle that came over the radio. “I’ll be back for it. I’m getting some intel.”

“You know anything about who those guys were?” Terry asked the pilot.

He shook his head. “No clue,” he said. “There shouldn’t be Seraphim in the Zozoan mafia. We should compare notes. I’m thinking your place.”

“Uh, it’s not really my place,” Terry said, “and I’m not sure how they’re going to feel about bringing a Grand Army spec ops guy with an obvious codename home. I mean–”

“Praxer Riose hangs out at mine,” the pilot interrupted.

“Right,” Terry said. “We can go back to my friend’s apartment. This will be great. Please, uh, don’t break things.”

Scipio cut him a long look, over the top of his sunglasses. The grey eyes that peered at him over the edge of those flight glasses had a flatness to him. “I’m an excellent house guest,” he said. “We should stop in a convenience store so I can get your friend some kind of housewarming gift. Some candy or something.”

“This,” Terry declared, “is getting weird.”


#4

Lera thought that Roxanne’s apartment was terribly small. She knew, of course, that this was a reasonably sized apartment. Her mother always explained how people with less privilege in life lived. She saw where her mother grew up in Nikeah, in the rougher neighborhood that seemed so alien from their life in Maranda. Her father was a STORM, which let their family live in Maranda. She was only eight, but she knew how lucky she was. Maranda was the nicest city in the Esper Union.

It was the only city not destroyed by the Leviathan War. She could still remember it vaguely, but it was a distant memory now. Being in Albrook brought some of that back, though, because she saw the people she knew were hurt by it.

The refugees made her sad to think about. Not everyone was as lucky as her family.

She distracted herself by exploring the apartment. She overheard Fara and Osprey talking to Roxanne, who seemed like a nice lady, if scary. She didn’t seem happy they brought her here. Lera couldn’t blame her. She probably didn’t want a robot stepping on her house. Lera definitely didn’t want that.

She worked her way through the living room (she thought the harp on the mantle was very pretty) and kitchen, until she found a room to the side. She didn’t expect an Albrooker apartment to have a training room, but here it was: the den had a few sword racks with wooden practice swords on them. She walked to one, looking up at it, and then grabbed the hilt of one. She pulled it down but froze when Fara spoke up from behind her.

“I’m not sure if you should be handling that!” she said.

“Oh, it’s fine,” Lera replied. She turned and made her stance, sword held up in front of her the way that she learned. “My dad taught me.”

“To use a sword?” Fara asked. “Cool parents.”

“I guess so?”

“Totally cool,” the older of the two said. “Back in Egmont, my dad wouldn’t have known what to do with a sword. Chop salad with it? Maybe?”

“That’s not a great use of a sword,” Lera said. She looked Fara over for a second, before she tilted her head to the side. “You can use a sword, though. How did you learn?”

“Uh, it was kind of like on the job training,” Fara said. “But Roxanne taught me a lot. She’s really good. I’m best with a zweihander and a long sword. Sort of like the one you have,” she said. She paused, though, before sized the girl up. “But I think you’re kinda short for it.”

“Am not!” She bristled at the suggestion.

“I mean, I’m… sure you’ll grow into it?” Fara finished, a little lamely. That mollified Lera a little, though, and she stopped frowning so hard at her. Fara scratched at the back of her head, before she tilted her head to the side. “Why have you learned to use a sword, though? I know I saw you use magic, too. Is it…” Lera watched her hesitate, but she caught a glimpse of disapproval on her face. “Are your parents training you?”

“My dad is a STORM,” she explained. She put the tip of the wooden sword down into the carpet, then pressed down with it. She watched the carpet give around the fat, rounded wooden tip of the sword.

“Did you get a magitek infusion?” Fara asked, incredulously.

Lera looked up, sharper than she meant to, then shook her head. “The Esper Union doesn’t give kids my age infusions. That’s… that’s only something the Empire did. But people who had infusions, they found out their kids can use magic. It just comes to me,” she said. “And Dad says… we should learn to fight, because the Union will need us, some day. So he started teaching me when I was four. It was right after the war ended.”

“I heard something about that,” Fara said. “Four? That’s hard to picture. I think I just started playing soccer back then.”

“Dad says I’ll need to be a knight,” Lera finished. There was a certainty in her voice; a few words that came not from rote repetition, but a deeper philosophy drilled into her for her entire life. If they were wrong – or even a simplification – she didn’t know it. “That it’s what the Esper Union needs. The Scandians have dragons, so we need knights. So we can kill them.”

Fara got quiet after that. It wasn’t hard for Lera to see that she made her angry. It was a quiet sort of angry, but she saw that before, when her father talked with some of the bureaucrats from the capital, who badmouthed the Grand Marshal. It made her nervous, and for all of her energy before, she found herself getting scared. She took a nervous step backward and opened her mouth to say an apology. Fara cut her off, though, with a shake of her head. “That isn’t what a knight is for,” she said. “Knights might have to kill people, but it’s not why we’re here. A knight’s most important job is to protect people. To keep them safe and happy. Anyone you kill will never be safe or happy again. Sometimes, a knight has to protect the people that they’re fighting against, just like they protect the people they’re fighting for. Do you understand?”

The little girl fell quiet. She stared up at Fara, surprised that the relaxed but nervous expression she had seen so far looked so intense. It made Lera nervous, but not like before. She thought of the things that her father told her, but it didn’t sound like this. What Fara said sounded so simple, somehow, but…

It also sounded right. Lera nodded, slowly, to her. “I understand.” She quieted for a second. Her next question didn’t sound rebellious, but curious. “But… what do you know about being a knight?”

“I’m the Mana Knight.” Fara winked at her.

Lera’s nose wrinkled and she raised an eyebrow. “Okay… Prove it.”

“Tough crowd,” she sighed. Then, she held her hand out, and the Mana Sword appeared in it: a long sword, extended outward away from both of them, and pointed off towards the wall. Lera yelped and jumped back, dropping her wooden practice sword.

“That was awesome!” she exclaimed. “You really are the Mana Knight!”

“Just like I said,” Fara said, with a grin.

“That’s so cool,” Lera sighed, a little less excitably. “I got saved by the Mana Knight. I can’t wait to tell Mom and Dad.”

“I wanted to ask you about that. What happened?”

Lera hesitated. She had tried to not think too hard about what happened. It frightened her. It didn’t make much sense. It seemed random, all told, and she wasn’t sure what to make of it. Her eyes fell away from Fara’s. “I got separated from my parents in a crowd,” she said. “We’re visiting Albrook on vacation. Then… these guys came out and grabbed me. There was a man with glasses there. He said I was ‘the right one,’ and then they shoved me in a box. They said I was going to the facility.”

She looked back at Fara. She saw her she tried to hide the concern and worry in her expression, but it leaked through. The Mana Knight looked scared.

“They took me to that shop, first. That’s when you and Mister Osprey found me,” Lera finished. “I don’t know where they were going to take me. I don’t really want to go there, though.” She looked up at Fara. “It doesn’t sound like fun.”

“Don’t worry,” Fara promised. “You’re not going to go there. Let’s go talk to Roxanne, okay? I think we should find your parents.”

“And see another robot?” Lera asked hopefully.

“Uh, maybe,” Fara said, “but I kinda hope not.” She leaned over, then offered a hand down to the younger girl. Lera hesitated a moment, before she reached up and took her hand. “C’mon. Let’s go talk to a Valkyrie.”

“I’m asking her if we can see a robot,” she said. “Just so you know.”

“I’m not sure that’s a great idea, Lera.”


#5

“Here’s your pizza!” Osprey said, carrying out the plate with two slices of pepperoni pizza to Bim. He put it down in front of the Griffon Hand and smiled, confidently. His own sat on the end table, idly, while he crossed his arms.

“Oh, thank you, Osprey!” Bim said. By now, Osprey had gotten used to how his friend could talk despite not having a mouth or any other visible way of speaking. When he sighed, it wasn’t as freakishly strange as it had been. “Mm, it smells good, too!”

Osprey still wondered how he smelled things.

“I’m glad you think so!” Osprey said. The Lancer watched, his joy not just in sharing food with his best friend, but in setting up the perfect opportunity. It was a casual setting. Indeed, so casual that he leaned half-over backwards, talons digging into the carpet for purchase, and very casually kept facing Bim while he pulled up his piece of pizza from the plate. He could finally see how Bim ate and–

He noticed the door opening. Osprey looked up at it, as Terry opened the door. He wore his Seraphim armor, which was a little out of the ordinary, but he needed to get in somehow. He was talking to someone else as he entered. “It’s a pretty large place,” Shale said. “Roxanne is kind of loaded, I guess.”

“Looks like,” the man walking behind him said. Something about his voice was immediately familiar to Os. “It’s been awhile since I lived in Albrook. Not since the Great War.”

When Osprey looked back down at Bim, the Griffon Hand had already turned to face them. The plate of pizza was empty, except for a few streaks of reddish grease where the pizza had been. “No,” Osprey whispered softly to himself, “I am undone.”

Terry and his guest walked in. The other man wore a white-and-gold flight suit, marking him as Grand Army. His age was hard to guess at; his hair was cut conservative, brown with a tinge of black that suggested some dye work, and his beard obscured some of his facial features. The sunglasses did the rest. This, Osprey knew, was a man taking some care to make his identity hidden. Which, of course, meant Osprey began to think about it.

Roxanne walked in from the kitchen. “Terry?” she asked. “Do we have a guest?”

“That’s right,” the pilot said. He stepped forward, then pulled out a Kuatridge Farms gift basket that he kept hidden behind him. Cheese, sausage, and fancy crackers loomed inside. “I brought you a housewarming gift.”

“Er,” Roxanne said, “how truly thoughtful. And you are…?”

“Call me Malakim Scipio,” he said.

“We met when I was, uh, in Altrega’s Beach.” Osprey noticed a slight frown on Scipio’s face when Terry said the name. “Did you know that some of the goons down there have Seraphim now? I didn’t know that. We need to let Violante know that the heat lasers really work, by the way.”

“As in, a giant robot,” Roxanne said incredulously.

“That’s right,” Scipio filled in, while the Valkyrie took the gift basket into her arms. The pilot folded his arms across his chest. “Seraphim. We’ve been tracking a smuggling group bringing them into Albrook. The Zozoan mafia got some–some guys named the Bogart Brothers, who used to be KN pilots. We’ve been trying to find out who they are.”

“Who is ‘we?’” Terry asked.

“Grand Army Special Operations Group,” Scipio said. “Also called the Malakim. You haven’t heard of us.”

“What, ah, do you do?” Osprey said.

Scipio cut him a glance. The sunglasses dipped down his nose, giving Osprey a good look at a pair of piercing grey eyes. “We’re their Seraphim unit.”

“And you’re pursuing the mafia?” Terry asked.

“When they start using Seraphim, yes,” he said. “Yes, we do. I want to compare notes. You’ve been active in Altrega’s Beach, and you ran afoul of a few things that got our attention.” He paused. “After the fact. I don’t like that.”

“I am not so certain that we should become involved in this, Mister… Scipio,” Roxanne said. “This sounds like a worthy cause, but beyond the scope of our current resources. Besides, we have our own matters to attend to, and my friends keep bringing unexpected guests over. So, perhaps…”

The Valkyrie trailed off. Scipio frowned, and Osprey watched him carefully. It took him a moment of careful study, but then he placed the details. The man’s face had aged, but the lines were familiar. He saw him once before, working a security detail for ZAPS, during a state visit. He also saw him on the news many a time. He opened his beak and blurted the truth out, as the shock of the realization went through him: “You’re Hannibal de’Zama!”

Hannibal pulled out his sidearm in a fluid, quick motion and pointed it at the Lancer’s head. Terry turned his head sharply to face his guest, while Roxanne produced a battleaxe from somewhere – really, with a gun pointed at him, Osprey didn’t notice where – and the room grew deathly silent.

“You, um, are aware that doesn’t make us not believe Os, right?” Bim asked timidly. “Pulling a gun on someone who accuses you of something is sort of like saying ‘look, look how true it is!’ It’s really not a great negotiating strategy.”

“I’m not negotiating.” Hannibal scowled and didn’t lower his pistol. “I want to know how you know that, who I need to kill after I kill you, and–”

His voice was cut off by the cry of a delighted eight year-old girl. Every head in the room swung to look at the door to the bedrooms, to where Fara stood. Ahead of her, a girl with red hair and green eyes darted across the living room – she ignored the gun, the battleaxe, and the potential for heat lasers – to stop right in front of the Shield, holding up one of the magazines she scooped off the coffee table in her mad dash.

“Oh my gods!” she said. “It’s the Shield! Can I have your autograph?”


#6

“Maybe,” Fara Somers ventured as she looked at the various drawn weapons, angry stranger, and defensive friends, “we should all put down the weapons and chat? Just… because there is a little kid in here. It’s just an idea!”

The Shield looked down at the little girl and her magazine. Nervously, he picked it up with his Seraphim-armored fingers. A pen dropped out from a compartment and he held it up, while she smiled with delight. “Who should I make it out to?” he asked.

Roxanne, Osprey, and the strange, brown-haired man in the living room glanced between each other and put their weapons away. Bim stopped hiding behind the foot stool that he had taken refuge behind Fara let out a sigh of relief. “Okay,” she said. “Thank you, Roxanne, Osprey. And…”

“Malakim Scipio,” the man said.

“We just went over this,” Osprey said.

“Yeah, and it’s best if I use the code name,” Scipio answered with a glower at the Lancer. “Security’s a concern. How did you even know?”

Fara looked at them in confusion, having missed the entirety of the exchange thus far. Lera, for her part, seemed unconcerned; she only glanced at Osprey and Scipio, who was now holstering her sidearm, before she turned to look back at Terry. She answered as brightly as before: “Lera, please! Lera Casterian,” she said. “I saw you on television when I was little! And there was a man who dressed up as you at a party. It was very nice.”

“Oh, shit,” Scipio and Osprey said simultaneously. Then, they glanced at each other.

“That’s a bad word!” Lera snapped at them.

“Sorry,” they muttered in unison. Then, they glowered at each other again.

Lera fixed the both of them with a stern frown. “Look. I’m getting my autograph. I understand you’re very busy with everything, and need to have a manly scowl-off at each other, but some of us are trying to do very important things here! So I would appreciate it if–” The Shield, being something of an expert on how to handle a child fan, quickly signed the glossy cover of the magazine and put it in her hands. She squealed, happily, and hugged the magazine against her.

“So…” Roxanne said. “You two know something about this child? Fara and Osprey found her this morning, hidden in a laundromat. It was a human trafficking front and they kidnapped her.”

“A laundromat?” Terry asked. “The Seraphim we fought blew one up.”

“A Seraphim blew up that laundromat just after we got out!” Fara said. “This can’t be a coincidence!”

“No. It’s not a coincidence,” Scipio said. He glanced at Osprey again, before he kneeled down in front of Lera. He looked at her over the edge of those sunglasses. That gave Fara her first good look at his grey eyes. She couldn’t blame the girl for freezing up, then, and staring at him. Fara felt a fright herself. Those weren’t normal grey eyes. There was an intensity behind them; a look, she thought, that could kill. “You said your last name is Casterian. Who is your father, kid?”

“Hadrian Casterian,” she answered in a small voice.

“The head of Esper Union’s STORMs,” Osprey said, “now that Halberg is the Grand Marshal.”

“Gods,” Fara swore. “No wonder they wanted to kidnap her.”

Lera looked down at the ground, her hand shaking. “Dad told me… he told me to be careful,” she said. “It was supposed to be a fun vacation. So all three of us could spend time together. He said that people might try to hurt us, though, if they recognized us.” She looked back up at Fara. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. Dad said that I shouldn’t let people know.”

Fara opened her mouth, then closed it. She shook her head. “It’s okay,” she said. She walked over, then put a hand on the girl’s shoulder. To her surprise, she leaned against her leg, and kept the magazine hugged against her. “I understand. You didn’t really know who we were. We’ll get you back to them, okay?”

“Okay.”

“They may still be after her,” Roxanne said. “Didn’t you say that a Seraphim destroyed the place they hid her away in? I should think that tells us that they did not want her to be found. If they know she yet lives, then they may do so again.”

“That explains a lot,” Terry said. “Too bad they got away.”

“Should we go to the police?” Fara asked. “They might help us find the Casterians.”

“I don’t think that’s smart,” Scipio said. “Whoever the mob’s working with, it’s giving them some serious firepower. I think they’re watching for someone to go to the cops about this. When we move her, I think they’ll be watching, and they might attack. It’s best that we minimize the chances of a brawl in the middle of Albrook. I have some resources. I’m going to tap into those, then contact them through a back channel.”

“And then what?” Roxanne asked. “We secret the girl to them?”

“Not quite,” Scipio said. “If they’re going to make a move, I want to be ready for them.”

“And we need to know why they kidnapped her,” Fara said. She looked down at the girl at her side, then back up at the rest. “There is something else going on. Lera, you said they wanted to take you to… a facility?”

“When they grabbed me,” she confirmed. “The man with glasses said that they wanted to take me to a facility.” Fara felt her fingers dig into her leg, as she hugged herself against her. It made her frown, as she looked at the others.

Scipio pushed his sunglasses up, but Fara caught the look of consternation that went across his face. “We need to find out what that facility is,” he said, “and who else is in there.”

“Do you have an idea?” Terry asked.

“Yeah. But I’m going to need your help.”

A glance was exchanged between all of them. In the end, they all looked to their host, Roxanne. The Valkyrie was quiet a moment, as she thought about it, and then she nodded at this newcomer. “You have it.”


#7

They got the van courtesy of Scipio’s Grand Army connections. It didn’t look like a Grand Army van; it was a plain Saeder-Krupp make, probably five years old, and one of those typical magilyte engines that ran a little too noisy. The engine was already on; Osprey sat in the driver’s seat, and somehow was wearing a delivery man’s uniform, fitted to it him not very well, and the hat looked ridiculous when pulled down over his brow. His beak stuck out past the brim of the hat.

Fara didn’t have the heart to tell him. He started musing about being a delivery driver the moment that he put the outfit on.

“This could get dangerous, Os,” she said. “You be careful, okay? We don’t want anything happening.”

“Don’t worry,” Osprey said. “I am the night. Also, I promise a delivery in thirty minutes or your money back.”

“They, um. They didn’t pay you to do this.”

“I know. But it’s important to have a productive mindset!”

Fara sighed. Then, she reached a hand in through the open window of the van and patted him once on the shoulder. “Be careful out there. Don’t take big risks. You’re carrying some important cargo.”

The Lancer nodded seriously. “I know. You be careful, too, Fara.”

The van rolled out of the parking space in the downtown parking garage that Scipio set up, turning onto the one-way street the exit led into. Fara watched it speed away, then she pulled out her mobile phone. She pressed her thumb down on Roxanne’s contact info, before she spoke into the phone. “They’re off,” she said. “I’ll come meet up with you, Roxanne.”

“Good,” the Valkyrie said. “I have the child with me. We’re on the way to meet her parents.”

“Great!” Fara answered. “I’ll be right there.”


#8

Osprey watched the parking garage recede in his rearview mirror. Then, he looked forward, keeping his eyes on the road. He didn’t need to glance back at his one passenger, riding in the back of the van. He felt a couple of bumps. The weight in the back made the van ride differently than it usually did.

“Are you doing okay back there, Terry?” Os asked.

“Sure,” he said. “This is probably the only time I’m okay with you driving while I don’t wear a seatbelt.”

“Well… you are in Seraphim power armor.”

“Sure am,” Terry said. “Are they following us?”

“Sure are,” Os answered. “There’s two cars following us. They’ve been with us since we did that last right turn. Are you ready? I’m going to take us over the Lenart Bridge. If they’re going to deploy their big robots, it’s going to be there.”

“Right.”

Os took the entrance ramp to the highway. The van shot up onto the elevated road, and a large suspension bridge came into view. The Lenart Bridge was one of the major river crossings in Albrook, a six lane suspension bridge that carried one of the city’s major traffic arteries out of downtown. If Os got a downtown job, he could take this every day for his commute, he thought. It also made a bottleneck, though, as it was one of the only large crossings of the Solthai River that one could find in the city.

Which was the plan.

Osprey didn’t panic when he heard the roar of two engines. The Seraphim landed landed to each side. The two robots grabbed onto the Van, and Os felt the suspension give out as the tires lifted off the ground. Cars veered to the side; others slammed on their brakes. The traffic obstruction lengthened, and Osprey got a good view, because the van was suddenly being lifted into the air. He glanced out the window, and saw one of the sleek Sera-R’s grabbing onto the van, as they flew off towards one of the rocky islands in the harbor.

“That’s pretty far out of the way,” Terry said.

“Make sure you stay in the back,” Osprey said. “And don’t move a lot. If they have heat sensors, they’ll realize you’re back there. They might, if they realize the weight doesn’t match, anyways.”

“These guys, uh, these guys aren’t that smart, Osprey.”

“Oh,” Osprey said. “Well… that’s truly unfortunate.”

“That’s what I said.” Terry sighed. There was a moment’s hesitation, before he asked, in a joking tone of voice: “So… are you going to ask her dad about getting a job with the EUS?”

Osprey hesitated. “I’m not sure,” he said. “It isn’t really my sort of specialty.”

That took Terry by surprise. “Really?”

“Mm-hm,” Osprey said. He hesitated a moment, before he ventured a question. “Did you see her use a fireball?”

“No,” Terry said, “but I heard about them. The Imbued. Those kids can use the magic that one of their parents got through an infusion.”

“Well…” Osprey considered. “Yes. But there’s something that surprised me about that. How much do you know about STORMs, Terry?”

“Not much,” he admitted.

“They have a primary element,” Osprey said. “I was reading about it when I applied for a job with a magitek laboratory. They always develop a primary element – one of the four elements, which is their strongest spell. Usually, they can only use three of those elements, and can’t use the one that is opposite of their primary element. Their children often do the same…”

“Uh huh?”

“Well…” Osprey sighed. “Hadrian Casterian’s is ice.”

“Oh,” Terry said. “Oh, no. So she isn’t…”

“The research is new. I’m not sure. But it seems awkward,” Osprey said. “I mean, he must know. She might not really be his daughter. It seems like it could make for an awkward thing to bring up in a job interview.”

“I, er, wouldn’t bring up your boss’s children in a job interview, Os. As… as a general rule,” Terry said, “of doing job interviews.”

“Oh. Good to know.”

The van soared over the water, cradled by two Seraphim, until they came down towards the island. There was an old warehouse, dating back to the Great War. From the air, it looked delipidated, with many of the warehouse roofs being rusted through. Osprey saw the little signs, though: the way the grounds were too clear, the way the so-called debris was all pushed to the side, making for clear paths to move cars. He didn’t see people down there, but he knew they would be waiting.

He made sure that Shiva’s Edge was hidden under the seat with a hand, and then he waited. He closed his eyes and counted, as they lowered. He felt the tires set down on the concrete surface, there, and he looked up. He saw, first, one of the warehouse doors open up, and a dozen men carrying submachine guns stride out. They were all trained on them.

“Get the fuck out of the va–” The voice of the Sera-R pilot was cut off, as a third white Seraphim touched down. A fist smashed the robot to the side, as the glorious white-winged Seraphim stood there, eyes blazing green.

Osprey unbuckled his seatbelt, then kicked through the windshield. In a single, fluid motion, he had Shiva’s Edge drawn and in his hands. The mafiosos screamed, aiming their guns up, and then the sliding door of the the van flew off. It hit the concrete, sparks flying, while the Shield stepped out onto the concrete platform, and turned his armored head to look at the soldiers.

“Hi,” he said. “We need to have a chat about why kidnapping children is wrong.” His gravitic batons dropped down into his hands. “I brought these to help me make my point.”

“And me!” Osprey added.

“Yes,” the Shield agreed. “And him.”

The mobsters opened fire, peppering the van with bullet holes, but they didn’t touch Osprey. He leaped into their midst, with Terry at his side.


#9

Fara walked quickly down the street. She tried to pay attention for anyone following her, but she didn’t see anyone. Osprey had taught her a little about how to watch for a tail, but it wasn’t something she ever put in practice before. She thought she was doing okay, but she couldn’t be sure about that.

She was set to meet Roxanne and Lera in the Zeppelinbourg, where her parents would be waiting. She had to take a drain down there, but it was a short ride. It was only another five minutes before she stepped off the platform. She had the vague sense of something being wrong when she did. The platform was too empty for this time of day. Fara tensed – her still new instincts recoiling – and took note. The brochures that advertised the light rail’s lines wafted in the wind. A piece of wadded up paper blew by.

Fara started to form the Mana Sword, but then she thought better of it. She didn’t want to risk drawing attention to herself, if someone was waiting for her.

She walked down the stairs leading away from the platform and saw, immediately, what gave her a bad feeling. Roxanne was slumped against a wall, a bloody gash cut into her side. The Valkyrie had a hand over it – and a battle axe lay on the ground nearby, discarded. Fara swore softly under her breath, then sprinted to her side.

“Roxanne!” she cried.

“Gh,” the Valkyrie groaned. “Praise be to Zahd, you’re unharmed.”

“What happened?” Fara asked. “Where’s Lera?”

“The child… he showed up,” Roxanne said. She looked up at Fara, and there was a new emotion in her blue eyes: something that felt close to fear. It turned her bowels to jelly. “The one that’s doing the kidnappings. He’s a servant of the Dark Gods, Fara. He took her. I wasn’t enough to… He was stronger. Stronger than any of their priests that I have faced before.”

She swallowed. “Which way did he go?”

“Fara. No,” Roxanne said. “Not alone.”

“Which way, Roxanne?” Fara repeated.

She hesitated, then she relented. “He took a boat that he had ready in the harbor.”

Fara nodded and stood up. “Will you be okay?”

“I’ve already called Eleod,” Roxanne said. She reached her other hand out and grabbed Fara’s. “I can’t stop you. But be careful.”

“I will,” Fara said. She squeezed her hand back, and then she looked down at the harbor. She saw a small boat going across the water. It looked slow, from where she sat. Her eyes narrowed, and then she pulled her phone out, dialing a number. “Violante? I need a ride.”


#10

Seraphim Astartes was the finest single war machine in the Grand Army’s arsenal. The role of the Malakim had been difficult to define. The Grand Army wasn’t something that prized individual combat prowess or a reliance on superweapons. Indeed, Celiose Cole had famously remarked that the Grand Army was composed of soldiers instead of warriors. Hannibal found it strange, then, that he commanded a unit of warriors in an army of soldiers. That was the nature of robot combat, however.

A Seraphim wasn’t like a tank. It could stand against battalions with the right pilot, and the only hope of bringing one low was either luck, a skilled pilot, or a superior machine. Once, Hannibal would have resisted that very idea. There was a comfort in knowing that soldiers, not warriors, were the greatest force one could apply.

But, he learned the truth: the warriors were needed, so the soldiers could stride on.

He accepted that about himself – or, maybe, he accepted that he couldn’t accept his nature. He never had been a good leader, without the charisma of his uncle; he was a middling commander, who won battles only because of Halberg and the others; he was a terrible politician, whose policies left the Web in flames and a nation’s coffers emptied. What he thrived on, and it still filled him with dread, was the challenge of combat.

With the Malakim, Hannibal de’Zama could indulge that.

Seraphim Astartes was a machine for a warrior, not a soldier. Designed by Diamond’s and the GA’s finest, it was armed with weaponry that placed it on par with half of a regiment. Its response times were unparalleled. Two Sera-R’s fighting against had little chance, at least on paper, but Hannibal knew that a readout of schematics hardly mattered. Astartes thrived not because of the armaments, but because of the results.

This time, he was ready for the two black Sera-R’s of the Bogart Brothers.

They were both repaired. Hannibal filed that away; whoever funded this had a lot of money to throw at the problem. Johnny’s still carted that magitek rifle around, and he knew it posed a greater threat. The gravitic gatling cannon on Harry’s Sera-R would have a hard time ripping through the Astartes’s armor. Which was why his first punch smashed into Johnny’s Sera-R, just after the Shield burst through the van, and then he flew right for Harry’s.

The Atma Blade erupted from the swordcaster and swung back. He saw Harry’s Sera-R whip its gatling cannon up and fire. Hannibal flew into the rounds – they smashed into the super-durable plastic and flattened, harmlessly – and swept the runic energy blade out. Harry had the sense to duck his machine to the side, the blade cutting only through air.

As Hannibal expected, Johnny fired the magitek beam rifle for his back.

He dropped the two remote control wing-units down. They split open, and a barrier of red light erupted, and caught the rifle shot before it hit. The two units folded up, then, and fired two blasts of energy. One shot through the rifle, splitting it in two down the middle. The other went wide.

“What the hell!” Johnny shouted.

“You’re outnumbered,” Hannibal answered with that steely calm. He swung the Atma Blade around, the sword catching Johnny’s Seraphim sword. The blade flared, the energy field expanding, and then he sawed through the Seraphim’s sword in a single motion. When the gatling cannon swung up, the Astartes’s free hand smashed it back down, and then he chopped the blade out and caught the Sera-R’s neck.

“Oh fuck!” Harry yelled, “You cut my fucking head off!”

“Just your robot’s,” Hannibal answered as the Seraphim’s head dropped with an unceremonious clatter to the ground. Harry’s machine rushed blindly for him, but Hannibal kicked the robot back. Then, he turned the Astartes, to meet Johnny’s Seraphim.

A longsword extended from the Sera-R’s forearm. It glowed a brilliant red, leaving a haze in the air. Hannibal recognized it right away, as the blade grazed along the Astartes’s side, and left a thin line of melted plastic where it brushed. “Heat blade,” Hannibal said. “You have some serious tech.”

“Shut the hell up!”

“Where did you get it?” Hannibal asked. The Atma Blade whipped to the side and he lifted the other arm; a retractable cannon popped out of the forearm, and shot a blast that blew out half of the Sera-R’s head.

“I don’t have to answer you!” Johnny yelled. “There’s three of us! We outnumber you!”

“Wait,” Hannibal said. “Three? I don’t see–”

“I’M BOBBY RAY BOGART AND I LOVE CHAINSAWS!” a third voice screamed over Hannibal’s radio, so loud that it caused feedback, and a third Sera-R dropped down from the heavens with a massive chainsaw gripped in both hands. The robot-sized chainsaw slammed into the Astartes’s shoulder, chain blades grinding into it, ripping and tearing, but not breaking through the armor. Sparks exploded.

Hannibal kicked the robot away from his, sending it flying backward, and three of the wing-units dropped down, firing their magitek cannons. The beams ripped through the wrist joints and the head of the Sera-R. Its head exploded into a mess and the chainsaw dropped to the ground with the wrists. The weapon was still on – and it spun in circles, when the chain caught the concrete.

Everyone fell quiet, until Bobbie Ray spoke again: “Uh oh, Bobbie Ray lost his chainsaw.”

“What the fuck is he supposed to be?” Hannibal asked.

“Our parents, uh,” Johnny explained, his voice sheepish, “they didn’t really… send Bobbie Ray to school. He wasn’t much for education.”

“That’s… truly unfortunate,” Hannibal sighed.

“Yeah,” Johnny said, “I can’t argue with–” The wing-units fired again. Two blasts ripped through the knees of the Sera-R and sent the machine toppling forward. The robot’s torso smashed into the ground ineffectually. “What the hell, man!? We were talking!”

“This is a battlefield,” Hannibal said. “We weren’t.”

Harry charged blindly for him again. One arm smashed into the Astartes, the wild flail driving his Seraphim backward, but Hannibal’s machine turned. He swung the Atma Blade out, catching the Sera-R at the waist, and slashed the torso away from the hips with a single slash. The two halves of the robot fell to the ground with a clatter. Hannibal looked down at the robot, and then looked back up at the warehouse. He saw a flash of light from inside. The Shield and the Lancer must have moved inside.

“Gallus,” he said into the radio. “I need a clean-up crew.”

“Got it, chief,” the younger man said. His face came over the Astartes’s main screen. “Are you headed in there?”

Hannibal opened the hatch. “That’s right.”


#11

“We’re gaining on them, Fara,” Violante said. Fara could see that, but she knew they wouldn’t catch up to the speedboat in time. She could just make out the tall figure driving it, and Violante’s hovercraft sped across the waves, but not enough to catch up. There was a dock up ahead.

“When we get near the dock, I’m jumping,” Fara said, glancing at her friend.

“Sounds cool,” Violante said.

“Here’s hoping!”

The speedboat stopped at the dock, just ahead of the hovercraft. Fara saw the man step out: tall and thin, and balding, though she wouldn’t have put him as more than fifty. A pair of glasses were perched on his nose and his clothing was professional; he reminded her of a clerk or a teacher, perhaps. Of course, the way he led an eight year-old girl by the wrist, who blindly stumbled after him, ruined the impression. She looked at Violante, who nodded. The hovercraft swerved in – and then Fara leaped, landing on the dock.

The boards creaked when she landed. She went rushing after them, shouting as she did. “Wait!” she shouted. “I don’t know who you are, but let her go!”

She caught up in time to see the man turn. He had a kindly look to him, with a smile on his face. When he turned, Lera did the same, and what Fara saw surprised her. The girl wasn’t crying or screaming. She looked at Fara with lifeless, hollow eyes. A tiara of spindly black metal wrapped across her forehead.

“I wouldn’t want you to miss this, Mana Knight,” the man said. He smiled at her. “This presentation is for your benefit. Thank you for coming.”

“Um, I don’t know you,” Fara said. “What did you do to her?”

“Then, let me introduce myself.” He let go of Lera’s hand and it flopped down to her side. She stood there, stone still and rigid, and stared forward at nothing. The man patted her on the head, and there was something disturbing about the fatherly nature of the motion. “I am Zendir. I think of myself as… an educator, and you have come to be my student.”

“I so did not enroll in your classes.”

Zendir smiled. “Perhaps not,” he said. “To answer your question, I hope to awaken this child’s potential. Or, perhaps, yours. Truly, to find a creature like her… it’s rare.” He looked down at the eight year-old. Lera didn’t answer him. “I think whoever survives will be far more susceptible to my teachings.”

“If you think–” Fara started to spit out, but Zendir cut her off with a motion of his hand.

“Lera,” the Graulemn interjected, “would you please kill and eat her? Thank you kindly.” The girl’s eyes flashed red and she looked up at Fara. Her eyes blazed – and then, finally, there was a reaction. She screamed, but it was too high and animalistic to be human. Bright red fire swirled around her, then rushed up across her body. Her body shifted in the fires, growing taller, hulking over, and when a hand punched out of the flames, it was scaled and clawed.

The head that looked up at her was familiar, with the same facial structure as the girl Fara saved earlier, but the skin turned a shade of slate grey – and her torso and limbs were covered in black scales. Her hair extended out, still long, but it shifted into flame halfway down her back. The black steel crown was still wrapped around her head, but there was something cold and hateful in those familiar green eyes, despite their glow.

Fara stepped backward in shock. She nearly dropped the Mana Sword. “She’s…”

“A half-esper, yes,” Zendir said. “Remarkable, isn’t it? I trust you’ll make a good accounting of yourself. If you survive this, Mana Knight, I’ll be sure that you kill again.”

Fara turned, ready to strike the Graulemn. He vanished, disappearing into a puff of dark mist, and then Lera screeched again – and dove right for Fara. Sharp, draconic claws swung down and slashed across her shoulder, drawing blood with the strike. Fara stumbled back, wide-eyed, at the monstrous form of the little girl.


#12

The Shield watched the last of the mafiosos crumple to the ground in a heap. The gravitic baton left him unconscious – and he saw that Osprey had taken a few more out. They had moved into the warehouse quickly, because being underfoot in the middle of a giant robot fight wasn’t a smart idea. The inside of the warehouse wasn’t what the Shield expected. He thought there would be holding cells, shipping containers, any of the usual things that a Zozoan Mafia operation would use. All of that had been cleared.

In the center, there were magic circles drawn on the floor, and piles of reagents. Some sort of sorcery was at work. Now, Osprey was standing there, looking down at it. The look on his face – at least, to the extent Terry could read a Lancer’s expressions – was confused. “I’m not sure if I’m reading this circle right.”

“What do you think it is?” Terry asked.

“This circle should let someone teleport to it,” Osprey said. “But that’s–”

“Impossible,” Terry finished.

“I know,” Osprey said. “But the workings are right. The magic is a Ticonderan style, I believe. But, it’s…”

“Uh, Os?” Terry said. “It’s glowing.”

Osprey began to back away from the circle. Light flashed along the circle’s outer portion, then shot along the lines filling it, until they reached the center. Then, black mist shot up, poured out, and took the form of a man. He had a thin frame and a kindly smile; round glasses perched on his nose, and he turned to look at Terry.

He smiled. “Ah, the Shield,” he said. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. And you, too, former agent Osprey.”

“Can’t say it’s a pleasure for me,” Terry said. “Given, you know… the shadow magic, the kidnapped kid, the mafia helping you…”

“No.” He laughed politely. “I suppose it wouldn’t be. If you’ll pardon me, but I rather lied. Discovering you were here forced a change in my plans. I would rather not deal with you today, though you fascinate me. I have a new student to look after.”

“A new student?” Terry asked.

“The Mana Knight. Or the girl.” He shrugged. “Whoever kills who will go on in my program.”

Osprey’s voice was like ice. “Who are you?”

“I am Zendir,” he said. “And, today, I have traveled here to take your lives.” He turned to face Osprey and threw his arm out. The arm shifted, turning midnight black, and lengthened to shoot across the space between them. His arm became a sharp black blade – and would have impaled Osprey clean through, had he not brought up Shiva’s Edge. When the enchanted katana met the man’s magicked limb, sparks flew, as if steel struck steel.

Terry rushed him. He swung a gravitic baton back, the weapon humming with power, and Zendir whirled. His shadow-steel arm swung up and then the blade expanded out. A gaping, fanged mouth of shadowstuff formed. It bit down on onto the beatstick, as the shockwave rolled through the man. He held his ground – and his monstrous form ripped the beatstick away.

“He’s not human!” Osprey shouted.

“No. I am more.”

Zendir leaped into the air and Terry swung his remaining baton as he landed. The blow threw Zendir back, throwing him into a wall, but his arm turned into the shadowy blade again. It stabbed forward, slamming into Terry’s side, and gashed along it – but couldn’t bite through the Seraphim armor. He scowled.

Osprey threw shuriken, but the stars hit the wall in Zendir’s wake. He leaped again, and Terry used his jets to meet him in that titanic leap. His fist swung out, slamming into the man’s head – and smashed him back against the wall. He turned to smile, before he kicked off the wall, and then came at Terry with both feet.

His feet turned into monstrous, shadowy claws, and kicked into Terry with the force of a freight train. The impact smashed him into the concrete floor, shattering it around his armored body. The rebar below cracked, and a crater was left in the ground. Terry’s head spun; his vision swam, and his ears rang. He could barely make sense of everything. He could hear Osprey grunting and shouting. He heard laughter, too: measured and control, gentle, like a father laughing at his child child’s joke. He heard steel singing when it struck metal, too, and saw the flash of sparks shooting in front of him.

Then, awareness came back, and the Shield lurched upright.

Shiva’s Edge clattered to the floor. He saw Osprey’s arms and legs twitch. His eyes were opened wide and filled with terror, and his body lurched, as Zendir’s arm was around him. It wasn’t an arm any longer, but flowing like a shadowy fluid. It wrapped around Osprey’s neck – and the black stuff was being shoved down the Lancer’s beak, into his throat. Osprey gurgled and Terry realized what the dark priest was doing.

He was drowning his friend.

“I admire a man who has been broken, Shield,” Zendir said, calmly. “As you have been. Once you are, you may be put back together. You may be… repurposed. Tell me, will watching your friend die break you again? How many times can you break?”

Terry’s eyes widened behind his helmet. For a moment, he felt himself freeze. He felt the pang of everything that came before. The pain of losing Shiru, of losing Guardia, of losing his powers. He felt that pain come back, watching Osprey’s arms thrash and hearing him choke. But, then, he noticed: three of those feathered fingers were held out straight.

Then, two.

Terry realized he wasn’t alone. He watched the last finger curl in.

Osprey suddenly jerked his head back, away from Zendir, and Terry’s remaining gravitic baton swung hard. It smashed into Zendir’s head, which exploded out like a shadow gel, and his body ceased resembling human form entirely to slosh down. Osprey fell free, sputtering and hacking, as Zendir’s head reformed – and rage replaced his mask of calm, as he screamed at Terry. He leaped into the air and came flying down towards him.

“No,” Terry said. “We don’t work that way.”

He activated the heat lasers in his eyes. The beam fired, exploding towards Zendir’s chest. They struck – smashed into him, and then smashed him through the battered roof of the building. He flew out, high and free, and then splashed down into the ocean outside. Terry let out a deep breath, before he turned to look at Osprey.

“Os!” he yelled, running over. “Are you okay? We have to–we have to find Fara!”

“Gck,” Osprey groaned. “That… that was disgusting. That–” The Lancer shook his head. “Where could she be? Back in the city? But…”

Terry heard the door open behind him. He turned to see Hannibal de’Zama walking in, Atma Blade clutched in his hand. He looked at Terry, then at Osprey. “I saw a speedboat and a hovercraft hit the island,” he said. “People got off. There’s some kind of fight there.”

The Shield stared at him for a moment. Then he nodded. “Let’s go!”


#13

Fara rolled to the side, dodging another fiery slash of Lera’s claws. Her shoulder stung, though the slash was mercifully light. The half-esper shrieked again, alien and terrible, and her green eyes whirled to look at Fara. The pupils had become long and narrow, like a reptile’s. Fara could do little more than leap back, and then jump over a sweep of her dragon-like tail. She channeled Salamando into the Mana Sword; the fiery aura helped to make the flames that the girl called do no harm to her.

Already, much of the concrete area around the dock was blackened. The wooden boards of the pier had long since become cinders, and smoke and ash choked the air. It seemed to do nothing to Lera. The half-esper breathed easily – but for Fara, even with Salamando’s protection, it made her lungs and eyes sting.

“Lera!” she called out. “Please! Stop! That guy is crazy! An evil shadow priest is probably the last person you should listen to!”

She didn’t really expect talking to work. But, she couldn’t bring herself to attack a little kid.

The half-esper screeched again. A ball of fire swirled into existence above her head, then hurled down at Fara like a missile. She swung the Mana Sword, shaped like a long sword, into the fireball. It dissipated – but it had more than heat. It threw her backward, the explosive force slamming her into the ground.

She forced herself to her feet. Fara had to accept something, then: she couldn’t do this forever. Sooner or later, even with her wards, the half-esper would overpower her. She shook her head, fighting back a rising panic in her chest. “Remember what I told you?” she said. “That a knight… sometimes a knight has to protect the people they’re fighting against.”

She saw no understanding in those inhuman green eyes. But, this time, the words weren’t for her.

Fara looked past those eyes, to the crown above her head. She remembered, then, the basic tenets of Rainericism. The way that Rainere began: as a mortal woman, controlled by a crown put upon her by a devil. Fara’s own green eyes narrowed, and she lifted her sword up. She remembered, too, what she said about a rapier: it wasn’t a weapon for a real battlefield. A rapier wasn’t likely to kill. But, that was what she needed right now.

The Mana Sword shifted from a long sword to an elegant fencer’s blade.

Lera screeched at her, jaw opened too wide for a human, and her mouth full of sharp fangs. Then, she charged, and flame swirled around her. Fara stopped channeling Salamando. She felt the heat suddenly roll into her, making her skin redden. She channeled Sylphid, instead. Wind swirled around her – and then she used it to propel her forward, straight for the charging monster. She stretched her rapier outward.

And she flew, hurtling over the swipe of a claw, and her rapier struck the slave crown. It ripped free, the black metal strands tearing off. The crown slammed into the ground and shattered, as Fara fell, then took a knee. Lera collapsed, too, and the fires around her winked out. She crumpled to the ground, once more an eight year-old girl.

Fara stood, shakily, and stared at her. Her eyes were closed – but she was breathing. She walked to the girl and kneeled down next to her. She scooped her up, carefully, and picked her up. She didn’t wake.

“Fara!”

She turned, to see the Shield charging up. Behind him, Osprey and Scipio came running up. They stopped and looked at her, watching her and the girl in her arms. “Terry!” Fara called out, hurrying towards him. “I didn’t realize–look, there was another guy–”

“I think we took care of him,” the Shield said. “For now.”

“You both saw the same man?” Scipio asked.

Osprey looked between the three of them. He looked like he might be sick; Fara saw him keep wiping at his beak with his sleeve. Fara looked from the Lancer to Scipio, then she nodded her head. “Yeah,” she said. “It was the guy who kidnapped her before. He had some glasses.”

“Said his name was Zendir?” Fara asked.

“Yeah,” Terry answered.

She caught the way Scipio stood up straight. His eyes widened behind his sunglasses – and then he quickly pushed them up. He looked angry, somehow, like he might explode on the spot. His expression was fierce and furious. And yet, he only managed a quiet: “I see.”

“There’s something else,” Fara said. “She’s… um. Lera is kinda sorta a half-esper?”

All three of them asked in unison: “What?”

“Yeah,” she said. “I think… that’s why he was after her.”

Scipio looked off to the side, and then he nodded after a moment of silent deliberation. “That makes sense,” he said. “I doubt Casterian knows. I doubt the girl knew – and she still might not.” He looked down at the wreckage of the slave crown. “That thing… that would be how he woke her up. I never should have let Rinster…”

He fell silent again.

“What do we do?” Terry asked. “The girl will be hunted. Her parents… they have to know.”

“Um, but…” Fara hesitated. “Do we really want to, you know, destroy a marriage?”

“She’s a half-esper,” the Shield retorted.

“You can help,” Osprey said. The Lancer turned to face Scipio. It was rare, Fara thought, to see him look angry. And yet, in the moment, he did. “You must have contacts. You can make sure she’s watched. Protected. So she can have a normal life.”

“I don’t–” Scipio started to counter.

“I’m not asking, de’Zama,” Osprey said. His voice was stern. She looked back at Scipio and she realized, then, who this man was. She realized why he was familiar. When he looked at Osprey, she thought he might try to attack again again on the spot.

Instead, he nodded. “I’ll talk to Halberg,” she said. “And Isobel. We’ll keep her safe. But some day, when she’s old enough… I think you’ll need to talk to her. You’ll have to tell her what she is. She has some decisions to make.”

“We can do that,” Fara said.

She felt the girl in her arms shift. Fara looked down, to see her roll her head to the side, and open up one green eye. The iris and pupil were normal, now, and Lera smiled lazily up at them. “Uh, so…” she managed, tiredly, “You saved me, didn’t you?”

Fara laughed. “Sure did.”

Terry walked over and made a thumbs-up with his hand. “All in a day’s work.”

“Thanks,” Lera said, with a sigh. She smiled, leaned her head against Fara’s shoulder and closed her eyes for a moment. Then, she asked: “Did I miss another robot fight?”


#14

“Dad!” Lera cried out. “Mom!”

She an across the floor of the Zeppelinbourg, leaping into her mother’s arms, and hugged her tightly around the neck. She felt guilty when her mother started crying against her, but she did her best to not cry either. It didn’t work so well, but she wasn’t bawling, at least. Her father hugged them both, but she caught a few unshed tears in his eyes, despite his smile.

“Oh, thank the gods, you’re all right!” her mother said. “I thought–I thought the worst! We couldn’t find you anywhere, and…”

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” she stammered out. “They saved me! They, um…” She looked back at the people who came with her. Scipio wasn’t there. She didn’t know where he went to – and it seemed like he should have stayed, because this was supposed to be the fun part in the stories. But Fara was smiling, even though she didn’t have the sword out. Mister Osprey looked as serious as ever, but she thought he seemed happy.

The Shield, of course, stood out. His armor made him look out of place in the middle of the Zeppelinbourg, but that was the point. Even her father gaped at him.

“It sounds like we owe you our thanks,” her father said. He smiled, walking to the shield, and extended a hand. “Hadrian Casterian. This is my wife, Meriana. I can’t say I expected a man like you to rescue my little girl, but I’m in your debt.”

“It’s a pleasure,” the Shield said. When his armored hand took her dad’s, her father’s looked positively tiny in comparison. It made Lera laugh, despite the situation. Her mother looked at her and smiled, then picked her up, as she stood back up. “It was a group of criminals. We made sure they won’t try to bother your daughter again, sir.”

“There were also giant robots,” Lera told them.

“This sounds like a story,” her mother said, with a raised eyebrow. “What kind? Like the ones I pilot, honey?”

Lera shook her head. “So much cooler, Mom.”

She frowned at that.

Fara stepped forward and smiled, hands clasped in front of her. “I don’t think she has anything more than a scrape or a bruise,” she said. “She was out cold at the end of it, though. Also, we have this.” She held out a magazine, with the Shield’s signature on it – but now Fara’s and Osprey’s were scrawled across it too. Her father took it. “It’s a memento.”

Hadrian laughed. “A memento?” he said. “She’ll treasure it, I’m sure,” he said. “Miss… Somers, wasn’t it? If you’re ever in Maranda, please feel free to call on us. The same goes for all of you.”

“I’d be happy to visit!” Fara answered.

Lera looked at her parents, then back at Fara, and grinned brightly. “That would be a lot of fun!” she said. “I want to practice with you, next time!” She saw Fara’s smile falter for a moment – but then it recovered, and she nodded. She looked at Osprey, next. “You, too, Mister Osprey. But I’m not sure if I could practice with you, Mister… er… Shield.”

He laughed. “Maybe some day.”

“We should get her back,” her mother said. “Thank you all so much. Please, if you ever need anything, don’t hesitate.”

“Want to hold this, Lera?” her father asked, holding the magazine out. She nodded and took it. She tucked it under her arm, being careful to not bend it, while her parents said their last goodbyes. Everyone waved to her. She smiled back and waved. They all waved back – but she saw Osprey looking to one side.

She glanced there, too. Scipio leaned against a wall around a corner. He glanced at her, for a moment, and then nodded. She opened her mouth to say something, but he turned, and started walking away. Lera watched for a moment longer, before she looked back at the three people still watching as she walked away. She waved at them, then she looked down at the magazine with their signatures scrawled across them.

“What do you think of them, honey?” her mother asked.

“Oh, Mom,” she said, as she looked down at the glossy magazine. She didn’t care what was on the cover – some electronic equipment, it looked like. The signatures were the only thing she could see. “They’re great. They’re real heroes. Real knights. I wanna be like them, some day, when I grow up.”